Theresa May’s demand that EU nationals coming to the UK during a Brexit transition deal should enjoy fewer rights than those already in the country would amount to “penalising citizens”, Guy Verhofstadt has said.
Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said May was “not very serious” when she proposed the idea.
He said: “It’s not acceptable for us that rules will continue without change for financial services, for goods, for whatever other business, and only for the citizens, their situation will change. That is penalising citizens.”
He added: “For us that is not acceptable. We do not even want to be talking about it.”
The Belgian MEP was equally blunt when asked about UK hopes for a final deal that would mean different arrangements for different sections of the economy.
“That will not be the outcome of these negotiations. It cannot be the outcome,” Verhofstadt told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, saying he could not countenance a trade deal that would also see the UK seek advantage through lower taxes and regulations.
His comments came as the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said it seemed inevitable the UK would have to stay in some sort of customs union after Brexit, a further indication of what seems to be a gradual Labour shift on the issue.
She told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “We cannot see a way forward when it comes to Northern Ireland or to tariff-free trade across Europe without us being in some form of customs union that probably looks very much like the customs union that there is at the moment, and that’s our position on that.”
During her trip to China at the end of last month, May raised the idea of different rights for EU citizens who arrive after March 2019, during a transition period expected to last until the end of 2020.
Verhofstadt said the European parliament was “very worried” at the idea of such a reduction in citizens’ rights, calling it “a bureaucratic nightmare”.
Asked why there could be no change to citizens’ rights during a transition period, he said: “Because transition is simply the continuation of the existing situation. That’s not a bureaucratic answer.
It was, Verhofstadt noted, the UK that had asked for the transition. He said: “Britain needs a period from now on, let’s say until the end of 2020, to prepare itself. But the rights and duties will be the same during transition. That is also the case for UK nationals living on the continent.”
Asked whether the UK could secure a so-called Canada+++ trade deal, for example one with special dispensation for financial services, Verhofstadt reiterated the EU’s view that this was impossible.
“It will be a far more difficult negotiation than simply to say, ‘Oh, we like financial services, we’ll put it in; we don’t like this sector and we put it out’,” he said.
“There will be something, certainly, about financial services, but there will then also be something about regulatory equivalence. What we don’t want is that with this whole agreement we establish a type of a financial centre that is competing with the continent not in a serious way by every time lowering the type of rules so that we create a competitive disadvantage.”
Asked why the UK would not be able to see the flexibility given in EU trade deals with Japan and Canada, Verhofstadt said this was because they were external nations seeking to converge with the bloc, while the UK was seeking to diverge, and had to face the consequences of this.
• This article was amended on 18 February 2018. It originally quoted Verhofstadt as warning about demonising EU citizens during a transition phase. This has been corrected to penalising.